India’s low-caste Dalits – which literally means the oppressed – are demanding the right to ride a horse, sport a moustache, wear jeans and sunglasses and take out marriage processions playing music from Hindi films that people could dance and party to.
The new assertiveness is tied to what’s going on. Last month, 21-year-old Pradeep Rathod was shot dead by high caste Hindus in Gujarat – the western state Prime Minister Narendra Modi owes his eminence to – for daring to buy and ride a horse.
And in Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit bridegroom, Sanjay Jatav, had to move the Allahabad High court to lead his baraat through the main road of a village dominated by upper caste Thakurs after the local administration refused to come to his aid citing parampara, or traditions. He has won the first round but is bracing for a backlash in the surcharged atmosphere.
Trappings of power
Dalits, or low caste Hindus also known as scheduled castes, have been traditionally denied the trappings of pomp and power by the upper castes who dominate all walks of life. Caste discrimination is rampant despite being outlawed making Dalits – who were formerly branded “untouchables” – one of the most marginalized groups although they account for over 200 million in the 1.25 billion population of the world’s biggest democracy.
Today Dalits are increasingly restive under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party rule. The right-wing BJP represents rich high caste Hindus who have a long history of oppressing and suppressing low castes. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there has been a spurt in crimes against Dalits under BJP rule since 2014.
In April, 10 Dalits were gunned down by the upper castes and police during a nationwide strike to protest against the dilution of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court packed with high caste judges, bringing to the fore the gravest fault line, apart from Hindi-Muslim conflict, in modern India.
Sullen and resentful
Sukhadeo Thorat, a leading economist at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Al Arabiya that “Dalits are ominously sullen and resentful because their position has deteriorated in the last four years”.
The Professor Emeritus said that “budgetary allocation for Scheduled Castes has declined since 2014, five out of eight states with the highest rate of atrocity against Dalits are BJP-ruled and even faculty positions reserved for SCs in universities are facing the axe.”
The gravity of the situation is evident from Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar’s grim warning after 10 Dalits were gunned down that “India will soon become Syria” if the Indian government doesn’t rein in anti-Dalit forces, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS, which runs the BJP. Pune-based Prakash is the grandson of Dalit icon B. R. Ambedkar, who is revered for his role in the framing of the Constitution.
Ashok Bharti who heads the National Confederation of Dalit Organizations, told Al Arabiya that insistence on riding horses, keeping moustaches and taking out filmi-style baraats is the external manifestation of a “volcanic reawakening” and the determination to fight for “everything under the Indian sun that others take for granted or treat as their birth right”.
Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit rights activis, author and political theorist, says that an Arab Spring-like uprising is inevitable if constitutional and legal safeguards for Dalits are tampered with.
He is also an ardent advocate of job reservation for Dalits in the private sector but capitalists have dismissed the quota demand as sacrilege.